I only buy a lottery ticket when things aren’t going well.
More poor people buy lotto tickets than wealthy people. It’s not hard to see why. I’ve been well-off, and I’ve been poor, scraping together my life paycheck to paycheck out of stubbornness as I hoped for something better. I always knew the odds of winning the lottery were very bad. Buying a lottery ticket is not very rational, especially when you’re trying to save money for basic living expenses. But during the lean times, it seemed like buying a lottery ticket was just as much a sure bet as anything else in the world. Winning the money would solve all my immediate problems, and other solutions seemed equally out of reach. Why not play the lottery?
Honkai: Star Rail is a video game of the gachapon variety.
I dabbled a bit with its more-famous predecessor, Genshin Impact, playing it enough to get to the dramatic first boss fight. But I never played Genshin Impact seriously, not enough to spend real money playing it. This year, mostly due to a group of friends who were also getting interested in these games, I played quite a bit of Honkai: Star Rail.
Because of my interest in Star Rail, I learned a lot about the mechanics of gacha games. In a typical RPG, characters will enter or leave your party depending on story choices or in-game mechanics. In Honkai: Star Rail, characters may temporarily join the adventuring party for story reasons. But to have access to those characters permanently, you must play the lottery.
The lottery in Star Rail is the Banners. On the Banners you do Pulls. (They’re called Warps by the game, but Pulls by most players.) You may periodically earn Rail Passes, which are lottery tickets, in the normal course of playing the game. Otherwise, you can buy these tickets from the game with Stellar Jade – an in-game currency. Stellar Jade can be earned from playing the game normally, but can also be purchased, in a roundabout way, from the cash money store. Each Rail Pass costs 160 Jade; each Rail Pass is one Pull. The most common thing to do is to use ten tickets at once: a Ten Pull.
Most of the time, a Pull will get you a Light Cone. These are accessories equipped to a character to improve their stats and abilities in some way. Common Light Cones, which are Three Stars, are essentially worthless. They are grist for the mill. Feed them to better Light Cones and they will level them up, but actually equipping a Three Star Cone is an act of desperation that one only would attempt in the early game. Light Cones do drop up to Five Star quality. A Five Star Light Cone is a good Pull, but usually not as good a Pull as getting a new character.
Like all premium currency in these ostensibly free-to-play games, it’s more efficient to buy large quantities of Stellar Jade (actually Oneiric Shards, which can be traded one-to-one for Jade, but this is pedantic) at one time, rather than space these purchases out in smaller quantities. You get more bang for your buck.
If you’re serious about playing Honkai: Star Rail, it is quite a bit more expensive than playing the lottery. It is quite a bit cheaper than undergoing In-Vitro Fertilization.
Uh-oh: this suddenly became one of those video game essays that’s also about a deeply personal topic. If you were to tap out now, I wouldn’t blame you. This is a content warning that I am about to discuss medicine, and pregnancy, and other nasty body things that might be triggering and uncomfortable. A content warning can break up the flow of an essay like this, but I think it’s important to add. It’s more warning than I got when I had to walk out of not one, but two, keynote talks at tech conferences this year when the men on stage were talking about their mothers’ or wives’ struggles with miscarriage and childbirth.
Early on in our marriage, we never thought we wanted children. This was partially out of fear of the experience, and partially out of a fear that we wouldn’t be able to reliably provide for a growing family. When I finally got a steady career that paid enough to afford a child, I dropped birth control. I figured, we can do this now, so, if it happens, it happens.
It did not happen, and as I approached the age of no return it seemed like a wise idea to consult a specialist. The fertility doctor told me that I had some cysts in my uterus that may have previously prevented implantation of a fetus. Those could be removed surgically. From there, his recommendation was that, considering my age and demographic, I attempt IVF. I had the best possible insurance, which would cover the vast majority of the exorbitant cost.
When you’re undergoing IVF, you go to the doctor a lot. They take a blood test to ensure you aren’t pregnant before starting. Then, when you do start, there’s a blood test roughly every other day, to monitor progress, accompanied with an awkward ultrasound. Every day during IVF – which lasts from ten days, to two weeks – the patient is tasked to self-administer several injections to the abdomen. You get used to doing this, though it never stops feeling a bit like mad science. The hormonal injections enlarge the ovaries, causing them to produce way more eggs than would normally be produced in a regular biological cycle. You can absolutely feel this after a few days. The additional weight of mass in the abdomen weighs uncomfortably on the stomach, making it difficult to sit entirely upright without pain.
Throughout this process, there’s a dozen other little inconveniences. Medicine should be administered at the exact right time. Taking large vitamin pills – pre-natal – is recommended, and they’re painful to swallow. Because of the vagaries of insurance practices, the doctor called a pharmacy middle-man who routed the various prescriptions to multiple different end pharmacies. The middle-man pharmacy called me repeatedly just to confirm basic details about me but could never answer my questions about the prescriptions. The shots had to be mail-ordered and over-nighted, and they had to be kept in the fridge. When one dose shipped too late, my only option was to drive an hour across town to a specialized pharmacy to pick up a replacement, making several frantic phone calls in the car on the way to assure insurance would still cover the dose. Insurance did not cover everything, and one shot was much more expensive than I expected.
I tried to keep an ordinary schedule and not let this impact my normal life too much. This meant, at one point, taking a long needle into the bathroom of a drive-in theater. This particular shot had to be administered intramuscularly, which is easiest to do in the backside. There I was, bare-assed in front of strangers in a dirty ladies room, trying to mix medication while my husband nervously stood by to administer the dose. A stranger in the bathroom, who happened to be a vet tech, assisted with this procedure.
After the cycle is complete, the IVF patient goes to the nurse to extract the eggs that were generated. This is a short procedure but is done under anesthesia, to avoid the majority of the pain. It is, frankly, quite painful, though I suppose childbirth would be worse. It requires the intramuscular shot mentioned above, as well as a strong antibiotic that made me very sick, and which had to be taken 36 hours prior to the procedure.
A funny anecdote: upon waking up from anesthesia the first time, I told the nurse, quite sincerely, that I had just met the Master Chief. She laughed, but I insisted. “No, I really did meet the Master Chief.” Yes, yes, the things we see under anesthesia can feel quite realistic, she replied. But I HAD met the Master Chief, or, specifically, the voice actor, who, along with the actress for Cortana had been at a local convention recently and signed my Halo 4 poster. It was difficult to convey this, or the cosmic importance of it, to the nurse, in my drugged state.
After the eggs are extracted, the pain lasts for about a week after. The eggs go onto the lab, where they are fertilized with the partner’s donation. Then, there is attrition. My first round of IVF resulted in a fairly remarkable 17 eggs. From those, only some will be mature enough to fertilize. Only some of those that fertilize will actually grow. Of those that grow, only a few will progress to the “blastocyst” stage, which is the stage when they are theoretically viable to be re-implanted into the body. There is an optional step here, which was recommended to us – send the blastocysts in for genetic testing, to be sure they have the right number of chromosomes to survive to a healthy pregnancy.
Honkai: Star Rail has two types of character Banner. There is the Standard Banner, where a fixed selection of characters may be available per Pull. There’s a stable of fixed Four Star characters here. You’re rather likely to get them, and they’re solid additions to your team. If you happen to land a duplicate character, the duplicate character is converted into a material that powers up your existing character, so it’s not awful to score the same Four Star more than once. But the Five Star characters are the real prize, and quite a bit stronger. Stronger still are the characters on the Special Banner. The Special Banner is available for only a limited time, and features one particular Five Star that you’d be very lucky to receive. These Special Five Stars have dedicated story missions, fun designs, and power sets that are all but required to challenge the game’s hardest content.
The odds of winning the jackpot in the Powerball, one of the most lucrative multi-state lotteries, are 1 in 292,201,338. The odds of pulling a Five Star character on Star Rail’s Special Banner are 6 in 1000, with a guaranteed character after 90 Pulls. The odds of getting a healthy baby via IVF, as you can probably guess from the above, are highly variable, not so cleanly calculated.
The first two attempts netted me nothing. No fertilized egg grew strong enough to be viable for implantation.
When I got the call from the lab the second time – the call that told me that everything had died – I was at TwitchCon. I was, in fact, live on a friend’s stream when it happened, and I had to briefly excuse myself, and then, I had to just be cool for the rest of the day. Be cool despite the painful shots and the surgeries and the crushing disappointment.
I tried to call the doctor back, to ask next steps, but it was already late on a Friday and I was on the West Coast, resulting in a phone tag situation. We’ll try again, we finally decided. Sometimes it takes a few tries.
Another Ten Pull.
A call with insurance told me that this was the last cycle they’d be able to cover. A few weeks later, I was laid off from my job due to basic headcount reduction, making the situation even more final.
I like Topaz, one of the Special Five Stars in Star Rail. She’s a total girlboss, a business woman who comes across as cold and relentless in her pursuit of the almighty dollar. Topaz has a Career. But she has a soft spot for small animals. She goes into battle with her animal companion, a sort of alien pot-belly pig named Numby. When I pulled on Topaz’s Banner, I got her after my third Ten Pull! Not bad.
If you win the lottery, or if you have a successful IVF cycle, the results are dramatically life-changing. By comparison, getting a good Pull on the Special Banner will only enhance your experience in a single game. It’s still a nice feeling, though, just a little taste of that lottery luck.
For the third round of IVF, the doctor upped my medication dose. As I was driven home from the hospital, and put to bed to rest the anesthesia off, I prayed this was the last time. Maybe this time, I got my Topaz.
Even if you should happen to Pull a Five Star on the Special Banner, there’s a thing called The Fifty-Fifty. You have a fifty percent chance of getting the featured, limited-time character, and a fifty percent chance of getting one of the other, Standard Banner Five Stars instead. It’s still good, but not what you wanted.
Even if you should happen to get a healthy cell cluster from the IVF process, there’s still a thing I’ve come to think of as the Fifty-Fifty. The doctor has to implant the blastocyst back into your body… and maybe it just doesn’t stick there. Maybe it never implants in the uterus, never results in pregnancy at all. Waiting outside the clinic one day for my morning blood test, I spoke to a woman to whom that had happened, though it was a short conversation. “We were supposed to be pregnant by now,” she said, and then went quiet.
It’s not good, and not what you wanted.
A few days ago a new banner dropped in Star Rail, and I decided to invest. I took one round of Ten Pulls with free tickets I already had earned. I got a Four Star. I took a short break, and then bought tickets with currency. The first Ten Pull on that set, I got him: the newest Special Five Star, Argenti. I was so astonished by my quick luck that I kept going, pulling also to see if I got his Special Light Cone. I also pulled that on the first Ten Pull. The odds of those things happening in a row are less than half a percent. “What is this luck?” I said on stream, in astonishment. But I am not totally sure that I am a lucky person.
The next day, just out of curiosity, I quietly Pulled another Ten. Unbelievably, I hit another Five Star! This was on the Standard Banner, and resulted in Clara: a quiet little girl who goes into battle because she is protected by a powerful robot that serves as her adopted father figure. I’d love a little girl like Clara. She’s thoughtful, gentle, and smart; good with technology. But I think I’d maybe prefer a little girl like Hook: Star Rail’s adorable street rat. She calls herself “Pitch Dark Hook the Great,” makes fast friends with everyone she meets, and drags the other neighborhood kids around on adventures. She fights with a mechanical digger and wears a fuzzy winter hat much too big for her little head. Hook isn’t real, but… yeah, I think I’d endure this pain for her.
We won’t know the final lab results for a couple more weeks.
I think this week, I’ll buy a lottery ticket.
Email the author of this post at aj@Tap-Repeatedly.com. At least, I think that email might still work.